Instrumentally Yours

The late 19th century gave rise to some truly imaginative, public-minded Americans. We all know about the Thomas Edisons, the Henry Fords, the Garrett Morgans. But there were others who, while not household names today, lived very interesting lives and left behind fascinating legacies.

Among these we find Dayton C. Miller, born on a farm in Ohio in 1866, who worked his way through college in his home state and eventually became a professor of astronomy and physics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Miller’s was an inquiring mind, and he investigated many aspects of science throughout his life.

But his real devotion – you might even call it an obsession – was wind instruments, specifically flutes.

Flutes and a statuette from the Dayton C. Miller Collection on display this month

Flutes and a statuette from the Dayton C. Miller Collection on display this month. Photo by Shawn Miller

He amassed a collection of nearly 1,700 flutes and other wind instruments, plus hundreds of other objects related to the flute: statues, artwork, books, music, trade catalogs, instruction manuals. Then he donated it all to the Library of Congress, shortly before his death in 1941.

Some of the most elegant and interesting objects in this colossal collection are on display in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building this month, in a trio of glass cases on the first floor.

The display includes several of the rarest and most unusual flutes in the collection – a golden flute, some crafted of glass or crystal and some beautifully carved wooden flutes – as well as a selection of rare recorders and piccolos, including a Sioux tribe “courting flute” with a bird motif. One flute is designed to be used as a walking stick and resembles a wooden branch; there’s a knob at the closed end to grasp for walking and the keys are decorated to look like little branch shoots.

Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, the Library’s curator of musical instruments, said it was “quite fun” putting the display together. But, she noted, it was a bit “daunting” trying to determine what to choose from such a huge collection. “It’s like going into a toy shop and having to pick from thousands of items,” she said.The display also includes a selection of Miller’s flute-themed statuary from many nations, including a lovely piece of Meissen porcelain.

The ability to view the objects from several angles makes the flute end-caps visible, and that’s something many flute displays don’t afford, Ward-Bamford says. “With these flutes, some of the end-caps are made of beautiful materials – mother-of-pearl or ruby or garnet.”

The Dayton C. Miller Collection also will be the focus of the presentation “Two Thousand Flutes” on May 1 at 2 p.m. in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium. Ward-Bamford will be joined by Pittsburgh Symphony principal flutist Lorna McGhee and prize-winning piano soloist Ryo Yanagitani for a performance and talk about the Miller flutes; several will also be displayed that day in the Coolidge foyer. The concert is free, but tickets are available through Ticketmaster for a small service fee; to obtain tickets, click here.

If you miss the chance to view the flutes in person, significant portions of the Dayton C. Miller Collection can be accessed online. Here, for example, is a photo of Miller himself playing a special, vertical bass flute known as the “albisiphon,” which he described as having “a very rich and beautiful tone.”

His collection also includes artwork, such as antique prints and woodcuts, showing not only flutes being played but also depicting instruments rarely found today, from an ophicleide (a keyed brass instrument rather like a tuba) and a cittern (like a 10-string bouzouki) to a theorbo (basically, a lute with a lengthy, extended neck).

Researchers can view items in the Dayton C. Miller collection at the Library, by appointment with Ms. Ward-Bamford.




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